Kiev quickly sold off many of the more in-demand aircraft and scrapped or stored most of the rest. In 2021, the air force’s 125 front-line aircraft are what remain of those Cold War leftovers.
None of the planes and helicopters are less than 30 years old. Many are older than 40. Some are 50.
That’s pretty old—especially considering that over the decades Ukraine hasn’t significantly upgraded most of the aircraft. “What we have is generally enough for fulfilling our current tasks,” Lt. Col. Yuriy Gnat, an air force spokesperson, told Kiev Post.
“But you can’t repair and modernize planes endlessly,” Gnat added. “Most of them are now older than their pilots. Their airframes are drawing closer to their operational limits, and their service lives are getting harder and harder to extend.”
Ukraine, like Taiwan, is one of just a few countries that’s pretty much always under serious threat of invasion by a much more powerful neighbor. Kiev needs some way of defending its air space and supporting its ground troops from above.
Gnat’s assurances aside, it’s debatable whether the air force currently is up to the job. It’s not debatable that, within a few years, the force’s current inventory will rust away to nothing.
So what comes next for one of the world’s most embattled air arms? Stephen Blank, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has an idea. It’s … not good.
Kiev should acquire from the United States secondhand F-15 fighters, E-2 radar planes and KC-135 tankers along with smart weapons and networking systems, Blank proposed.
The administration of Pres. Joe Biden could finance the deal as part of its wider effort to deter Russian aggression. “The need to upgrade Ukraine’s air force presents an opportunity for the Biden administration to cause Moscow some genuine pain,” Blank wrote.
The idea is a non-starter. While the United States has lots of old F-15s and other aircraft in long-term storage at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Arizona and could provide them to Ukraine free of charge, the price of acquisition wouldn’t be the only cost associated with this “new” equipment, explained Tom Cooper, an independent aviation expert.
“Re-equipping Ukraine with a classic air force would … require complete rebuilding of the local support infrastructure, retraining of all the personnel, growing an entirely new generation of personnel from bottom up all the way up to growing new commanders—and then it would take years to deliver all the aircraft,” Cooper said.
“Then one would still have to bring the aircraft in question up to date with modern technology, equip them with modern weapons and comm systems and then train their air and ground crews.”
A total switch from a Soviet-style force to an American-style one could take decades and cost billions of dollars. If even a small portion of that cost fell on Kiev, it could break the air force’s budget, which even after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea stands at just $300 million annually. That’s one fifth of one percent of what the U.S. Air Force spends.
Now let’s imagine that the Ukrainian government somehow could afford to buy 125 modern warplanes. Even the latest planes and copters wouldn’t last long in a full-scale war with Russia, which right now keeps around 500 modern warplanes within quick striking distance of Ukraine.
Worse—Russia’s long-range air-defense systems could target Ukrainian aircraft while they’re taking off. For Ukraine, re-equipping existing squadrons with new aircraft on a one-for-one basis is “neither economic, nor makes sense,” Cooper said.
There are other ways of covering ground forces and defending air space, however. Ground-based air-defenses could protect Ukrainian territory at lower cost and without risking planes and pilots.
For front-line air operations, drones and loitering munitions—in essence, tiny cruise missiles that fly lazy circles until they detect a target—could substitute for manned aircraft. Again, they’d be cheaper and wouldn’t put aircrew at risk.
“Add to this strong electronic-warfare systems and hundreds of additional flying decoys—perhaps some equipped with towed decoys to keep enemy air-defenses busy and distract or confuse them—and that’s perfectly enough,” Cooper said. “As dramatically demonstrated in Libya, Syria and then in Azerbaijan in the last two years, the Russians simply have no means to seriously counter such a threat.”
For Ukraine, replacing manned aircraft with robots and missiles isn’t as radical as it might seem. Kiev already is replacing its tiny, antiquated navy with a coastal-defense system that combines land-based anti-ship missiles with a layered sensor network.
Not coincidentally, Taiwan—which is in a roughly similar geopolitical position as Ukraine is—slowly is transforming its own air force and navy in a similar fashion. Big ships and manned planes are becoming less important. Drones and smart missiles are becoming more so.